F1: Vettel's title bid fizzles out after spark plug failure at Suzuka

Story highlights

  • Vettel's 2017 F1 challenge fading fast
  • Hamilton opens up 59-point title lead
  • Briton can win drivers' title at US GP

(CNN)It's a problem that you'd expect on a cold, dark morning ahead of a morning commute, not in the glare of a Formula One starting grid.

But it turns out that even motorsport's most feted marque suffers from mundane motoring mishaps -- spark plug failure.
Ferrari spotted the problem on Sebastian Vettel's car minutes before Sunday's race, but frantic attempts to change the offending spark plug on the grid failed and six laps into the race, the German driver retired.
    End of the road? Vettel is surrounded by Ferrari mechanics in the pit garage at Suzuka.
    It was the latest hammer blow to Vettel's title chances as Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton took the checkered flag at Suzuka and extended his championship lead to an almost unassailable 59 points with four races to go.
    Vettel's DNF comes hot on the heels of his teammate Kimi Raikkonen's DNS at Malaysian Grand Prix the weekend before. For two weeks running now, Ferrari mechanics have scrambled to fix their drivers' car on the grid.
    And lest we forget the calamities in Singapore where the two Ferraris dramatically crashed into one another and out of the race under the lights at the Marina Bay Street Circuit.
    The team remain tight-lipped on the issues at Suzuka. Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene declined to speak to the media after the race in Japan, and didn't go into any detail in comments posted on Ferrari's official website.
    Meanwhile Vettel's public pronouncements focused on his desire to "protect" the team after its latest failure.
    "It's normal you're critical, especially if things go wrong, it's part of our job," Vettel told reporters.
    "I feel I need to protect (the team) -- we've done an incredible job so far. It is obviously a pity the last two races with the reliability issues, but you know, it's like that sometimes. Of course it hurts, and we're all disappointed," he added.
    "But now we need to get back, get some rest and then go flat-out for the last four races and see what happens."
    Ferrari last won the drivers' title in 2007 -- Kimi Raikkonen beat Hamilton by a single point -- and a decade on the early signs in the 2017 season had been so promising for the Italian team.
    Hamilton trailed Vettel by 14 points heading into the summer break after the Hungarian Grand Prix, but even "flat-out" probably won't be enough to salvage a championship that just five weeks ago was Vettel's to lose.
    A combination of Ferrari's unreliability and a resurgent Lewis Hamilton has turned Vettel from favorite to a rank outsider to win a fifth world title.
    Since returning from F1's summer break Hamilton has picked up 118 points (four wins and one second place) while Vettel has managed a paltry 45.
    If Hamilton wins the US Grand Prix (on October 22) and Vettel finishes lower than fifth the championship will be over and the waiting for Ferrari will go on.
    "It's kind of unbelievable... we are where we are," Hamilton said, when asked about the title race and Ferrari's spluttering challenge.
    "I was excited to have a good race with Sebastian here as I was in the last race but obviously he's been incredibly unfortunate.
    "There's still a long way to go -- 100 points is a lot of points. Anything can happen in life, so I've just go to keep my head down and hopefully continue to perform like this."
    For Ferrari and Vettel it will be a question of keeping their heads up.